02/08/2012 03:52 pm ET Updated Apr 09, 2012

10 Sneaky Ways to Make Valentine's Day Treats Healthier

With Valentine's Day fast approaching and our youngest daughter's first birthday coming even sooner, we're in the mood for sweet treats in Rome. But here's what we'd like to avoid: a giant family-wide sugar crash. (The kind that involves crying, screaming, flailing and foot-stomping...and we're not just talking about the pregnant lady here.) Actually Estelle, our birthday girl-to-be, hasn't really had refined sugar yet and as I said about our toddler at this age, she's got the rest of her life to become a junk food addict. For now, let's try to show her another way--but let's make it fun.

It's not about being fanatical though, our family is focused on healthy eating as a lifestyle. We're trying to develop habits that keep us all happy (some treats, good), healthy (too many treats, bad) and as far away from diabetes and obesity as possible and as it turns out, it's not as hard as I thought. Cooking from scratch is certainly an advantage because you can moderate the amount of everything going into even your gooiest confections--and at least you know everything is fresh, maybe even organic. But there are simple updates to make mixes more nutritious, too.

Of the many ways to make desserts healthier, running the gamut from easy to experimental, here are my favorites.

10 ways to make any dessert healthier

  1. Smaller portions. Instead of cupcakes, make mini cupcakes. This goes for frosting, too. Just use less. Either one of these techniques will put you ahead of the game without substituting a single ingredient.
  2. Reduce sugar. Cut the amount of sugar called for in a recipe by half. If this sounds too drastic, try reducing it by a quarter. You don't even have to replace it and in nearly every case, no one will ever notice.
  3. Substitute for sugar. Honey, agave and maple syrup are all great natural sweeteners. But because these are all liquid, don't replace the white sugar entirely unless you're feeling adventurous. If your recipe calls for one cup of sugar, try 2/3 cup of sugar and 1/3 cup of honey instead. If that works well, use even more honey next time.
  4. Use whole wheat flour. An easy way to add a bit of fiber and reduce the amount of overly processed food coming your family's way, whole wheat flour is often available in organic versions, too. Start baking with a blend, half whole wheat and half white flour, and if you still enjoy your favorite recipes, transition your flour supply to all whole wheat.
  5. Add wheat germ. Full of folic acid and fiber, wheat germ makes its way into most baked goods at our place...and no one is ever the wiser. For every cup of flour called for in a recipe, substitute ¼ cup of flour with wheat germ. Because you can see the brown flakes, wheat germ is a good addition to chunky recipes such as crisps, or chocolate cookies and cakes.
  6. Add oat bran. Another great-for-you food, oat bran can be added in place of ¼ cup of flour in lighter colored recipes such as yellow cake, chocolate chip cookies and pancakes.
  7. Replace oil with applesauce. Replace half the oil in any recipe with applesauce. This is an easy, can't-fail step that works as brilliantly for spice cakes and banana muffins as it does a boxed cake mix.
  8. Use white beans in place of butter. Since the consistency of applesauce is more liquid than butter, pureed white beans are a great substitute for half the butter called for in a recipe. Don't forgo all the butter because that delicious flavor has no substitute but beans will keep your cakes just as moist. Even pound cake.
  9. Add vegetables. If you have picky eaters, this secret weapon does double duty. Vegetables like pureed roasted beets or spinach actually keep cakes from drying out while adding a bounty of vitamins that some small fries might not be getting much of. (I know. I understand. I would like an instant solution to I-don't-like-it-itis myself.)
  10. Focus on fruit. When choosing a sweet treat, seek out recipes that feature fruit (crisps, cobblers, banana bread) and even vegetables by way of carrot cake and zucchini bread. Increase the amount of produce called for by half and your dish will only be more full of flavor and richness. If you sense that it needs more baking time due to extra juices and thickness, just add a few more minutes in the oven. In the end you'll have a delicious treat packed with nutrition.

Bonus: Say yes to nuts. Whenever a recipe calls for nuts--walnuts, sesame seeds, almonds, pecans, cashews, and so on--go for it. Unless you're baking for babies or those with allergies, you'll be adding texture, flavor and good-for-you fats in the easiest, tastiest way.

One final thought. Some people are excellent at eating in moderation. Sweet treats make their way onto plates only every once in a while and for those rare occasions, it's awesome to indulge. Especially when you're eating healthy the rest of the time. But for those of us with an uncanny amount of occasions to celebrate (Isn't it always someone's birthday at school?), very small children or health needs of our own, I've found these updates to be a health and sanity-saver for all of us.